Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Painter by Peter Heller

The Painter
"The way death is both near and infinitely remote, the way it freezes and somehow kindles the heat of something grotesque and maybe irresistible and sexy, which is life at its most desperate….this dark yearning is what happens when we idealize anything: the form of a woman, a landscape, a spiritual impulse. We move it closer to the realm of the dead, if not outright kill it."
Well. It’s a word Heller uses almost as punctuation throughout the novel, ending a thought, a conversation, a statement. The word has all the resonance of a bell, signaling the moment we must think for ourselves, decide its inflection, trust our narrator or not. Because we have here an artist who sees the world uniquely and reacts quickly, almost instinctively, to what he sees, to what he senses. He’s dangerous…until he is allowed to express and release his guilt and sadness over the death of his child, until he realizes he has a choice.

A couple of years ago I decided Heller’s debut The Dog Stars was one the best fiction books I’d read that year. After reading this novel I conclude that I am simply susceptible to his writing. His characters’ responses have a physicality so completely "other" from my own that I read his work with a deep curiosity. In this novel Heller addresses the nature of celebrity, the essence of evil, the knowledge of guilt, the awareness of choice, the balm of redemption.

A painter who likes to fish comes upon a man beating a tied horse. Meeting that man again in the dark while fishing a river, the painter kills the man.

I began by listening to this book on audio. I knew from the moment he began talking about fly fishing that I would read it, so I could go slow. Hot sun on cold water, a rushing river, a swirling pool, a limb casting shade…these things I must savor. When he mentioned cadmium yellow, I went out and got the paper copy.

Reading made this more accessible to me. When I saw the way the sections were divided, with gallery descriptions of paintings on display, and noted the spacing of paragraphs, everything slowed to the proper pace and got much more manageable. I sunk into this book like a lead weight through clear water. Heller hooked and played me, only to let me go at the end. It was fun; there is a little regret in being released.

Heller raises important questions about art, and the celebrity of art: does great art require emotional upheaval? He gives us his influences: Stegner, Hemingway, McCarthy, Beam (as in Jim Beam), Homer, Picasso, Delvaux. He answers the question he raises this way: Great art evokes emotion and the artist must be brave. Why brave? Because bravery is breathtaking, inspiring. Was Jim Stegner brave? Perhaps: not in the violence of his killings, but in his resistance to the characterization of criminal, of wrong-doing.
"Paintings [and novels] can take on a life of their own. It’s like stuff happens in them when you’re not looking. The crow and the horse started out as adversaries—I mean the crow would like to eat the horse, if he ever, say, jumped off the cliff and became a carcass. But instead they began to talk. I think maybe the crow cursed the horse. I told you that I thought the crow was telling the horse that he had a choice, that he didn’t have to jump after all. Well, I think that’s sort of like Eve biting the apple. You were talking about Genesis. I think it’s like that, the crow is like the serpent. He is giving the horse the awareness of choice. And with a full knowledge of choice comes a foreknowledge of death."
I can't let this review go without saying that Stegner's walk up to Ten Thousand Waves, the first sex scene with Sophia, and his description of a death-defying chase over mountains and through rivers felt positively lived. But the main argument--the grief-stricken father, the violence (thrice!), the celebrity--lacked some kind of convincing soul. I liked reading it anyway, but it struck me as a blue coyote.

Heller has the goods to write about nature, art, and us ordinary folk...what we feel when we feel deeply. We don't have to murder to screw everything up.

The audio is a Random House Audio production, read by Mark Deakins. The book in hardcover by Knopf is a lovely thing, printed as it is with the paintings’ description as section dividers. One may linger over those descriptions, getting a feel for size, for color, for sense.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

1 comment:

  1. Heller has the ability to create vivid mind pictures with his writing. I felt like I was in the middle of his story - an active participant rather than a passive reader. Bravo!

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